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Stanford band suspended for bad behavior: Are colleges fed up?

Stanford University found the band suffers from a 'systematic cultural problem,' but students say it's another example of the school gutting 'wacky' traditions. 

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Stanford University student Sam Weyen, who portrays the Stanford Tree, the school's mascot, poses for a portrait on the university's campus in Stanford, Calif. The school has temporarily suspended the school band over repeated violations.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

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Ever since it cast off its traditional band uniforms for cardinal blazers and funky hats and ties in the 1960s, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band has been known for its fun-loving, irreverent attitude.

But Stanford University alleges that in addition to the student group’s notoriety is a “systematic cultural problem” that has “not been taken seriously by the band or leadership” since it was found in violation of university rules on alcohol, controlled substances, hazing, and sexual harassment in the spring of 2015.  

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The university announced in a letter Friday it has temporarily suspended the band until the end of next school year, and plans to hire a professional music director who “retains final control” of the band.

The university is one of a number of elite institutions to come down this fall on student groups, with Columbia University also suspending its wrestling team and Harvard suspending its men’s soccer and cross-country teams for so-called locker room talk gone too far. Stanford has also limited how much alcohol students can carry and banned such traditions as Full Moon on the Quad that some worry encourages sexual aggression.  

But students argue that amid a national debate about binge drinking and sexual assault on college campuses Stanford has prioritized preserving its prestigious image over considering how its actions could hurt the eclectic traditions its students and alumni love.

“The university’s decision on the band is impossible to separate from recent negative press,” wrote the student newspaper Stanford Daily in an editorial on Friday.

“Though the university has denied any such connection, this perception is widespread, and we find it concerning that the university has chosen to ignore it rather than engage with students and share actual progress made in reforming its procedures and policies regarding sexual assault,” the editorial board continued. “Instead, Stanford has turned its attention to eroding the student-defined, ‘wacky’ culture of the university.”

The band was first barred from performing at away athletic events and having alcohol in the spring of 2015, after it was found to have violated a number of university policies about drinking, sexual assault, and organizational conduct, according to a university statement.

Violations included a tradition in which a band member was given an alcoholic concoction intended to make that individual vomit publicly; an annual trip in which some band members used illegal substances; and a band selection process in which individuals were asked a number of inappropriate questions on sexual matters,” according to a university statement at the time, as the Los Angeles Times reported.

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In the ensuing 18 months the violations continued, the campus Organization Conduct Board found. 

“We are concerned about the risk and liability to the University community and to Stanford’s reputation if Band’s conduct and behaviors continue in this manner,” said the five-member board in a hearing excerpted in the Friday letter. “As a result, we feel that extreme sanctions are required in this case.”

The board recommended the band be suspended for at least two years. Vice Provost for Student Affairs Greg Boardman agreed with the board’s conclusion, but worried a two-year suspension would “effectively end all aspects of the band” because it would be unable to recover. Instead, he recommended the suspension be until the end of the spring quarter in 2017 and the university hire a professional music director who “retains final control” of the ban, according to the letter.

“A model of this sort was in place for more than 30 years, without stifling the band’s unique character,” he wrote.

The band has been suspended before, according to the Los Angeles times. In 1986, it was barred from performing at two football games when, among several “lewd” acts, band members urinated on the field after a game. In 2006, it was temporarily suspended after it was accused of trashing the trailer that had been its on-campus home.

But this most recent suspension comes as the university has focused its attention on combating binge drinking and sexual harassment on campus. Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer, brought national attention to both the school and the issues when he was found guilty of sexually assaulting an intoxicated and unconscious 22-year-old outside a fraternity party in 2015. At the time of the controversy, Stanford was already in the process cracking down on binge drinking and working to stop sexual assault.  

Stanford has rolled out a number of initiatives over the last few years. The most-talked about new rule, as The New York Times reported in the fall, limits possession of hard alcohol to bottles smaller than 750 milliliters and bans liquor from undergraduate parties. Ralph J. Castro, the head of the university’s office of alcohol policy and education, told the Times the policy was not a reaction to the Turner case, but to the 30 or so students each fall who were sent to the hospital after heavy drinking.

In the face of alarming statistics about binge drinking and campus sexual assaults, other universities have instituted similar bans, according to the Times. At Indiana University, hard liquor is now prohibited at fraternity parties. At Dartmouth College, hard liquor is prohibited everywhere on campus, as Cristina Maza reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

The actions by these schools as well as numerous others are in response to reports of widespread binge drinking by students. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, and almost 50 percent report binge drinking within the past two weeks.

Alcohol has also been linked to sexual assault in college-aged students. In a 2015 fact sheet, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated that alcohol was a factor in 97,000 cases of sexual assault and date rape each year among college-age students.

But some students see Stanford’s actions as its attempt to save its image, even it means it hurts the band’s raunchy attitude students and alumni love. The editorial board of the Stanford Daily drew comparisons to the hard alcohol policy as well as accusations it has watered down the controversial Full Moon on the Quad. Students have said the university gutted the tradition, which would draw thousands of undergraduates out in a bacchanal-like kissing celebration on the first full moon of the school year.

An editorial posted on the Stanford Review website, a student political magazine, also called the university’s decision unfair.

“If the administration continues to eviscerate our traditions, what campus culture will even remain?” the editorial board wrote.